For its first seventy-five minutes, "The Boy in the Striped Pajamas" is an enthralling, unforcedly heart-rending drama, a quality motion picture perfect for adults and children of about eight and up. Older viewers, already knowledgeable about the atrocities of the Holocaust, will be deeply touched by a story that is told almost entirely from the naive viewpoint of a boy too young to fully grasp and understand the cruelties of the world around him. Kids, meanwhile, will be faced with a tough but valuable and necessary education on a dark part of history that they probably are not yet familiar with. The picture invites an open line of communication for parents to discuss what occurs in the film with their children afterwards.
Had writer-director Mark Herman continued down the natural path the movie seemed to be going, he would have ended up with a very special film, the kind that is taught in middle schools as an introductory lesson in history classes and worthy of enduring for decades to come. Regrettably, as astute and earnest as "The Boy in the Striped Pajamas" is for the majority of its running time, it goes so wrong in so many ways during the final fifteen minutes that it cheapens and ruins all that has come before. Indeed, Herman's screenplay is based on a novel by John Boyne, but just because the plot is taken from existing source material does not excuse the wrongheaded turns and unforgivable contrivances of the plot. In an instant, the film is tarnished to the point of no return.
At the height of World War II, eight-year-old Bruno (Asa Butterfield) moves from his home in Berlin to a gated house in the countryside with his caring mother (Vera Farmiga), soldier father (David Thewlis) and impressionable twelve-year-old sister Gretel (Amber Beattie). From his bedroom window on the second floor, Bruno glimpses in the distance what he perceives to be farmers and their children, all dressed in the same striped pajamas that their family's new potato peeler, the worn-down, weary-eyed Pavel (David Hayman), wears. Home-schooled and with no one to play with, Bruno's boredom and curiosity eventually get the best of him one day. Sneaking off to explore the off-limits area behind their property, he ultimately arrives at the electric fence separating himself from the farming community. On the other side sits Shmuel (Jack Scanlon), a lonely boy of about the same age. They strike up a fast friendship and Bruno begins visiting him on a regular basis. What he does not know, but will soon come to cursorily learn, is that the farmers are really Jewish men and women trapped in a concentration camp that his own father is helping to run.
"The Boy in the Striped Pajamas" deals with grim subject matter, but, until the climax, director Mark Herman makes it palatable for anyone mature enough to handle the material. He does not sugarcoat the topics of Nazism and the Holocaust, but merely chooses to see them through the eyes of an innocent child. Bruno does not understand why Jews are deemed so badhis experiences with not only Shmuel, but with former doctor Pavel, who helps him bandage his leg when he falls off a tire swing, have been nothing but positiveand is even more confused when his teacher tells him, "If you found a nice Jew, you'd be the greatest explorer in the world." Sister Gretel, meanwhile, is swayed by her schoolgirl crush on Lieutenant Kotler (Rupert Friend) and begins hanging pictures on her wall of Hitler and the Nazi flag. Bruno does not know what these things are, and so he is unable to comprehend their meaning. As the chimneys in the camps occasionally billow with smoke giving off a putrid stench for miles around, Bruno's mom finally is faced with the scope of what her husband is doing, and is disgusted by it.
Asa Butterfield (2008's "Son of Rambow
") is an extraordinary find as Bruno, so instinctive and vulnerable in his performance that he never once can be caught acting. Much of the film rests on his shouldershe is in nearly every sceneso a lesser child performer wouldn't do. As Bruno's innocence is chipped away but never wholly taken, Butterfield does astonishing dramatic work that someone three times his age would be envious of. As captive friend Shmuel, newcomer Jack Scanlon is just as remarkable. Scanlon has the ability to break the viewer's heart with only a glance, and his chemistry with Butterfield couldn't be better. As Bruno's mother, Vera Farmiga (2007's "Joshua
") is also first-rate, torn between her loyalty to her husband and her own conflicting set of values. David Thewlis (2006's "The Omen
") plays Bruno's military father as stern and set in his ways, a man in desperate need of a wake-up call. When he and his comrades view a propaganda film they are set to release to the public that deceptively depicts the camps as practically vacation spots filled with smiling faces and frivolity, its pointed irony has the power to turn the viewer's stomach.
And then comes the ending, sure to be heavily debated upon. If the film ranks for a long time as one of this year's best, all the good will that it has earned is thrown away by a denouement so off-putting, so strained, so manipulative, so misguided, so sickening, so unbelievable and so offensive that it turns the entire picture into a mockery. Without giving the concluding minutes away, it needs to be stated that what director Mark Herman has wrought is both irresponsible and a betrayal. By turning historical fiction into pure fabrication and asking the viewer to follow and sympathize solely with Bruno is a direct slap in the face to the real victims who lost their lives during the Holocaust, as well as to an entire Jewish population that still carries the weight around of this shameful piece of the past. "The Boy in the Striped Pajamas" could have been brilliant, and instead leaves one feeling unclean, angry, and distastefully toyed with.